By Steve Barkhurst
Theater pipe organs had a special relationship with silent films in the teens and 1920s, helping tell a story with sound. But Warner Bros. introduced talking films in 1927 with "The Jazz Singer." And by the time the 4/16 Robert Morton organ (expanded to 4/21 during restoration) was installed, the film industry was making the awkward conversion to sound.
Still, the organ lived a long life, as did similarly designed organs in other Fox theaters. By 1930, virtually all films were sound. But organists entertained audiences before screenings, during intermissions and after performances. Nonfilm events staged in movie palaces also were highlighted by the pipe organ. When silent film revivals became popular starting in the 1950s, particularly comedies featuring Charlie Chaplin, Buster Keaton and Harold Lloyd, music from a Robert Morton pipe organ was essential.
The Robert Morton organ now being restored for the Bob HopeTheatre was originally installed at the Fox in Seattle. The theater had a number of different names, but the original idea was to name it the Mayflower. Ultimately, it began as the Fox when Fox film studios owned a chain of theaters across the country. Fox theaters were renowned for their stately architecture, wide and deep balconies, and sumptuous deep red carpeting. Truly, moviegoing was an event.
The Seattle Fox defined the golden age of movie palaces. It featured an eclectic Spanish Renaissance architecture designed by Sherwood Demier Ford. Its architecture, however, didn't quite connect with the intended name of the building - the Mayflower - or even the original design of the organ. The organ grills had a nautical design of a ship's prow to honor the Mayflower name.
By the 1930s, the theater became the Music Hall. In the 1970s and '80s, it was a dinner theater before becoming a "mixed-use" house under the name of Emerald Palace. The building was demolished in the winter of 1991-92.
The Robert Morton organ was common in West Coast theaters, while Wurlitzers were primarily used in the East. The organ was installed in 1929 with the console mounted on a revolving lift. The opening organist was Jamie Erickson, a popular keyboarder throughout the West and Midwest in the 1920s and '30s. Its last performance in Seattle was given on Nov. 15, 1963, with organist Dick Schrum at the console.
Eight months later, the instrument was sold for $7,500 to the Carl Greer Inn of Sacramento. It cost inn owners another $3,500 just to haul it down from Seattle. It remained at the inn until Bonnie Ciauri, an organ enthusiast, purchased it and had it moved first to her Palm Springs home and later Hemet.
The Robert Morton installed in the Bob Hope Theatre replaces a Wurlitzer-Morton hybrid, a 9-rank Wurlitzer Model 210 with additional Morton ranks. The organ originally was housed at the T&D Theater before it was torn down to make way for the present Fox. When it was installed in the Fox, the Morton ranks were added. The Wurlitzer-Morton was removed from the Stockton theater in the 1950s and sold to an East Bay buyer. Its whereabouts is unknown.